Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district, infamous for a high degree of LGBT bullying and related suicides in recent years, has announced they may change policies relating to discussions on sexual orientation in the classroom.
The current policy mandates teacher neutrality in discussions relating to sexual orientation, but a potential new policy would stress a little more the importance of discussing controversial topics like sexuality. Teachers would still have to keep from advocating their personal opinions, of course. Interviews from the Advocate.com article:
Jonathan Plotz, an English teacher at Anoka High School, told the Associated Press the proposed new policy seems like a positive move. “I felt like before, I was prevented from having frank discussions take place in my classroom regarding sexual orientation,” he said. “I think that now, based on my initial reading, it has become what I’ve always tried to do when discussing any controversial topic.”
Another teacher, Jefferson Fletek, who is a gay-straight alliance adviser, expressed reservations. “My concern is with the use of the word ‘controversial.’ … What exactly does that mean and who decides?” he told St. Paul’s Pioneer Press newspaper. He hopes there will be ample and clear training on how to apply the policy, he added.
Given its history, this school district needs to take the lead in opening up discussions about LGBT issues in schools. The policy will be discussed in a meeting tomorrow - stay tuned for updates.
Hate crime towards gay and transgender people is on the rise across Britain, with thousands of people suffering abuse for their sexuality every year. Crimes against transgender people went up by 14 per cent during 2010 and, in some cities, attacks motivated by sexual prejudice are up by as much as 170 per cent annually.
The rise in homophobic crime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland went from 4,805 offences in 2009 to 4,883 in 2010. Campaigners say the figures are just the “tip of the iceberg” as research suggests three out of four people are still too afraid to report these crimes.
The police now record any crimes they believe are motivated by homophobia – anything from persistent harassment to serious assault and murder. Experts believe the reason for the increase may be in part because more people feel able to be open about their sexuality, making them easier to be picked out by thugs. Vic Codling, national co-ordinator of the Gay Police Association, said: “People have got more confidence in themselves and, when you get people who are openly gay, that provokes homophobes. There is still stigma in Britain and, if you’re open about your sexuality, that encourages people to take up arms and act on homophobia.”
The gay rights group Stonewall says there is anecdotal evidence that unprovoked attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are on the rise. The results can be fatal. The story of 62-year-old Ian Baynham, who was killed by drunken teenagers screaming “Faggot”, while they bludgeoned him to death in London’s Trafalgar Square in September 2009, is one of many. The Independent on Sunday is aware of at least nine people who have been killed by attackers because of their sexuality – or who committed suicide after being bullied – since 2009.
A growth in more extremist religious views has also contributed to the increase in attacks. A homophobic campaign, launched by extremist Muslims in east London earlier this year, featured stickers declaring the area a “gay-free zone” and that Allah would be “severe in punishment”. “A lot of the problems come when people believe their religion encourages them to be homophobic,” said Mr Codling.
The rise in recorded attacks may partly be attributable to an increasing willingness among the LGBT community to go to the police and report crime. Police have also been better trained in recording crimes as homophobic, rather than just robberies or muggings.
The most dramatic increase is in Scotland, where homophobic abuse has risen fivefold in five years, police statistics show. There were 666 crimes against LGBT people recorded in Scotland in 2009/10 – almost double the 365 reported in 2007/08.
In Oxford, homophobic crimes reported to police rose by more than 170 per cent last year; and in London’s West End, still a focal point for the capital’s gay nightlife, crimes motivated by homophobia increased by 20.9 per cent.
Experts say a dramatic growth in the number of transgender people seeking medical sex changes has made those born into a different gender more visible and therefore more vulnerable. In 2010, there were 357 incidents of hate crime against transgender people, up 14 per cent from 2009. The number of people medically changing their sex is growing at a rate of around 15 per cent every year: 1,200 people now undergo gender realignment procedures annually.
Bernard Reed, of the Gender Identity Research and Education Society, said: “The more people who feel the need to reveal their condition, the more people put themselves at risk. Our research shows 90 per cent of transgender people do not report abuse, so this is the tip of a very large iceberg. Society’s acceptance and understanding of trans people is up to 20 years behind LGB; we know people who are spat at every day.”
While numbers of reported incidents rise, police forces nationwide are closing down specialist LGBT liaison officer posts in response to budget cuts.
Sam Dick, of the charity Stonewall, believes the problem starts in school. “I think there’s a misconception that because the laws have changed, social attitudes towards gay people have changed. But it’s clear that people are leaving school feeling that homophobia and violent homophobia is acceptable: 17 per cent of gay students who have experienced homophobic bullying have received death threats. It’s clear this behaviour is going on in schools unchallenged.”
Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities minister, said: “Targeting a person purely because of gender identity or sexual orientation is a shameful act and will not be tolerated. We are working with the police to improve our response to hate crime. For the first time, forces are recording data centrally, which will help target resources more effectively and better protect victims. Everyone should have the freedom to live without fear of hostility or harassment.”
Rachel Maton, 56
Rachel has suffered systematic abuse since she began her sex change in 2007
"I became a target because I’m transgender. Youths would pelt my house with eggs, smash my windows and shout at me. One day, I was hit from behind and the lights went out. Then they set upon me. My nose was smashed flat and I couldn’t breathe. Now I’m careful not to get in a vulnerable position."
Chas Anderson, 20
Chas, a former model, was assaulted in April outside a gay bar in Clapham
"My partner and I were queuing at a cash point after leaving the bar when a group started making abusive comments. They started saying the shorts I was wearing looked ridiculous, and one of them said that because I was gay, I deserved to be dead. Next thing, a man punched me in the face and I fell to the ground. There was a lot of blood and I had to go to hospital. The police said there had been a spike in similar incidents at the time in Clapham and south London."
Can one man build effective bridges between evangelical Christians and Chicago’s gay community?
That is the hope of Andrew Marin - who has spent the last decade living in Boystown, Chicago’s officially-designated neighbourhood for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) residents.
He works to try to bring Christians and gay people together in open conversation about sexuality and spirituality - and that includes running a large-scale meeting four times a year at Roscoe’s, one of America’s most famous gay bars.
That is no small achievement in a culture where openly gay people and evangelical Christians have long viewed each other with suspicion.
But Andrew Marin’s determination to bring polarised opposites together in dialogue has grown in ways he never imagined.
From small beginnings 10 years ago, he now takes his message around the world and has worked with governments as well as churches.
He is fast becoming a well-known figure in the United States, and has collaborated with one of the country’s largest Christian publishers to produce a course for churches wishing to address questions about sexuality.
His main concern is to build trust between unlikely conversation partners.
He believes that too many Christians don’t understand the complexity of the small number of Bible verses that mention homosexuality - he also thinks that gay people are often too quick to dismiss Christianity.
But why did he feel the need to address these concerns by moving into Chicago’s gay village, with its sex shops, gay bars and saunas?
The answer lies in a series of conversations Andrew Marin had with his three closest friends over a period of three months.
One by one, each friend told him that they were gay - and he says the news came as a complete surprise.
He had grown up in a conservative Christian household, and says he was “the biggest Bible-banging homophobic kid you ever met”.
He was absolutely clear that Christianity and homosexuality were incompatible.
"I didn’t know what to do. I thought there was no way my theological belief system could ever line up with my friends’ way of life, so I ended up cutting ties with them."
But Andrew Marin says that over the following months, he believed God was asking him to get back in touch with his friends and apologise to them.
A few weeks later, along with two of the three friends, he moved into Boystown.
The early years were extremely difficult, he says, as he struggled to work out whether he could reconcile his friends’ sexuality with his Christian convictions.
"When I went to gay bars or events with my friends, I felt bad, because I felt that I should have been saying to people: ‘You’re wrong and you need to change.’"
But rather than condemning local people, he decided that he should be an open-minded Christian presence.
That decision brought with it some unexpected results - and an unanticipated nickname.
"For the first three years, everybody just called me Straighty Straighterson - because I was literally the only straight male [they met]. People would start talking to me about God and church and the Bible - people would just bring their questions to me."
So chance conversations in bars and clubs spelt the beginnings of what is now an organisation at work throughout the United States.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Foundation’s work are its Living in the Tension gatherings, where people from all perspectives gather together to explore questions about Christian faith and sexuality.
I met some participants from a recent meeting - including a married Christian couple who minister to male prostitutes, and a woman who self-defines as “queer” and who left the church because of its attitude towards homosexuality.
Most intriguing were two gay Christian men who had reached dramatically different conclusions about faith and sexuality.
Will is an openly gay man, and a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
He says he has resolved a “creative tension” he initially felt between his calling to ministry and his sexuality.
Sitting opposite him was Brian, who also says he’s always known he was gay - but whose traditional theology meant he chose to marry a woman and has since fathered a child.
He says that falling in love with his wife was “an experience that I can only say was through God himself bringing my wife and me together”.
'Judgement of God'
The two men’s stories could hardly be more different.
But the Marin Foundation believes that polite, honest conversation between people of all perspectives is essential if Christians are to address questions about sexuality more effectively.
Not everyone is convinced that Christians are ready - or able - to have many such discussions.
At Harvard University, a theologian who specialises in Christian understandings of sexuality has convened an international group of scholars to try and get beyond what he calls an “impasse” in current debates about religion and sexuality.
Professor Mark Jordan suggests that it may be time for “a kind of ceasefire - a disengagement, where we stop spending all of our time sniping at each other”.
And he says that each Christian faces a personal, spiritual question about how they involve themselves in such discussions.
"My hope is that I would be willing to kneel at a communion table with my bitterest enemy in these debates."
"There comes a moment when you have to shut up - you have to silence your angry conversation and submit yourselves in some way to the judgement of God."
So does Andrew Marin’s work in Boystown genuinely offer a way forward for Christians at war with each other over questions of sexuality?
That may depend on how many Christians are willing to tolerate the Marin Foundation’s refusal to define its own position on Christian sexual ethics.
Andrew Marin admits it is a criticism he hears frequently, but he insists that his focus is on enabling gay people who wish to explore Christianity to be able to do so.
He admits that some churches will continue to focus on “healing” gay people of homosexuality - while others will simply welcome and affirm gay people on their own terms.
He says that the Marin Foundation simply wants to get gay people thinking about Christian spirituality in its broadest sense, without a disproportionate emphasis on sexual morality.
"What we try and do is help the person live the most faithful, God-honouring life that they can through their understanding of where God is leading them."
This open-ended approach will frustrate both traditionalist and progressive Christians.
But few can argue with the fact that Andrew Marin’s foundation has enabled many conservative churches to begin open discussions about sexuality for the first time.
And there is little doubt that the relationships that he has built between Christians and gay people in Chicago would, for now, be unimaginable in many cities around the world - and may just offer a hopeful model for the future.
When I was growing up, my father bribed my brother and sister and me not to smoke. He offered us £100 if we could stay off the ciggies till we were 21. Despite this incentive, I naturally experimented. I have, however, only ever smoked two whole cigarettes in my life, both when I was 16 and on holiday with my mate, Hugh, in France.
On the first occasion, I only just made it back to the youth hostel where we were staying before passing out. I was comatose for 12 hours. On the second occasion, a few days later, I became a gibbering wreck within minutes. My father’s bribe was wasted on me. There was no way I could have become a smoker.
When my two boys were growing up, I made them the same offer, upgraded for inflation to £500. Did it have the desired effect? This is hard to say. Both smoke, but they are occasional smokers. They do not smoke every day and when they do, it is one or two in the evening. A fag with a drink after work.
One of the frustrations I feel about the debate over smoking is the way the world is divided into smokers and non-smokers. Are all smokers the same? Clearly not. Some smoke 60 a day, some 20 a day and some, like my sons, one or two, and not every day.
So when we talk about the risks of smoking, what do we mean? They cannot be the same for all smokers. Sir Richard Peto, Britain’s foremost expert on smoking, told me a decade ago that this was not a problem because all smokers eventually end up as 20-a-day smokers. But this is not the case.
Occasional or social smokers exist – but they are rare. They are defined in two ways: either as not smoking every day or as smoking an average of less than one cigarette a day.
Surveys suggest that between 10 and 18 per cent of smokers smoke five or fewer cigarettes a day. The surveys are now 20 years old but there has been little recent research.
Professor Robert West, an expert on smoking at University College London, is updating a study of light smokers he made with his colleague Peter Hajek in 1995. They found occasional smokers were predominantly middle class, better educated and viewed smoking as a social activity. However, they were still addicted. Some 80 per cent of occasional smokers find they cannot stop when they try. But this challenges our understanding of addiction. How can you be “occasionally” addicted?
Professor West says: “Nicotine addiction is not just about keeping the level of the drug topped up to avoid withdrawal symptoms. One way addiction works is by forming an association between situations where a person would typically smoke, which then creates the impulse to smoke when they find themselves in that situation again. A lot of daily smokers report very strong situational cravings.”
Not all occasional smokers are the same, however. Some used to be 20-a-day smokers who are trying to give up, while others will be 20-a-day smokers in a few months’ time. Relatively few are stable occasional smokers.
Switching from daily smoking to occasional smoking is possible – but it’s hard. Most smokers can’t do it for the same reason that most alcoholics can’t return to controlled drinking. It is all or nothing.
Yet some can remain occasional smokers – neither increasing their consumption nor reducing it. Figures suggest there are high numbers in North America, though this is unexplained. What protects them from escalation into dependence on nicotine and prevents the development of tolerance and withdrawal discomfort? There may be genetic factors, family influences or what experts call “dimensions of social adjustment that may accompany higher levels of educational attainment”. Or it may be down to simple bribery.
Occasional smokers pose another question. What are the health risks? Clearly they must be smaller than those faced by daily smokers – but they are not as low as you might think.
Smoking causes a wide range of diseases but the key ones are cancer and heart disease. With cancer, the risks are proportionate to the amount smoked. “The excess risk of cancer for a daily smoker is 15-fold higher than for a non-smoker,” Professor West says.
Heart disease is different – the risk is not proportional to the amount smoked. It is much higher, proportionally, for the first one or two cigarettes – hence the risk from passive smoking.
There is some fascinating evidence that demonstrates this. Helena, a small city in Montana, banned smoking in public in June 2002, only to have the ban rescinded six months later. During the ban, heart attack admissions to the local hospital fell by a staggering 40 per cent. After the ban was lifted, the heart attack rate increased to its former level.
Following publication of this research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warned that even 30 minutes of exposure to other people’s smoke might be enough to trigger a fatal heart attack in people at risk of heart disease.
Scientists have been puzzled by this disproportionate risk. A non-smoker who lives with a person who smokes 20 a day has one-third of the risk of their partner, even though they are actually exposed to only 1 per cent of the smoke.
Laboratory evidence suggests this is because toxins in tobacco smoke peak at low levels of exposure, increasing the stickiness of the blood (the tendency of the platelets to aggregate) and inflaming the arteries, increasing the risk of thrombosis – a blood clot that can trigger a heart attack. What applies to passive smokers, of course, also applies to occasional smokers.
Professor West says the mechanism is similar to that which puts people with heart disease at risk on days of high pollution. “Inhaling particulates has an immediate, same-day effect on people whose vasculature [the state of their arteries] is compromised. Getting an increase in the stickiness of the blood affecting millions of people means that, by the law of averages, some will hit the dust.”
Figures published last month show smoking continues to decline among young people. Nevertheless, 27 per cent of school pupils had tried smoking and 5 per cent smoked at least one cigarette a week, girls more than boys. Most of these will become 20-a-day smokers.
Pupils who were regular smokers were likely to show signs of dependence on the habit. Around two-thirds reported that they would find it difficult not to smoke for a week, while almost three-quarters said they would find it difficult to give up smoking altogether. Almost two-thirds of regular smokers had tried to give up smoking.
The proportion of pupils who thought it was OK for someone of their age to try smoking to see what it is like has steadily decreased from more than half in 1999 to around a third in 2010.
Of course, it is not a good idea to smoke. Apart from anything else it makes your legs fall off (I find this morsel of information works especially well with children). More people undergo amputations because the circulation in their limbs has been destroyed by smoking than for any other reason.
But if you have to smoke, it is better to smoke occasionally rather than regularly and it is better to smoke a little than a lot. It confers some health advantages, though they are not great. It may be easier too to give up, though not much.
And yes, bribery works – but only a bit.
I’m still gutted that Anne didn’t clinch this one… she played like the badass she is, but Petkorazzi sneaked through. Special K hasn’t really been the same since…